My name is Clyde Warrior and I’m a full blood Ponca Indian from Oklahoma. I appear here before you to try as much as I can, to present to you the views of Indian youth. If I start my presentation with a slightly cynical quote it is because American Indians generally and Indian youth particularly are more than a little cynical about programs devised for our betterment. Over the years the federal government has devised programs and “wheeled them” into Indian communities in the name of economic rehabilitation or the like. These programs have, by and large, resulted in bitter divisions and strife in our communities, further impoverishment and the placing of our parents in a more and more powerless position.
I am a young man, but I’m old enough to have seen this process accelerate in my lifetime. This has been the experience of Indian youth — to see our leaders become impotent and less experienced in handling the modern world. Those among our generation who have an understanding of modern life have had to come to that understanding by experiences outside our home communities. The indignity of life among the poor generally in these United States is the powerlessness of those who are “out of it,” but who yet are coerced and manipulated by the very system which excludes them.
I must say I smiled at the suggestion that this conference would draw together articulate spokesmen for the poor. There may indeed be articulate spokesmen for the poor but are no articulate spokesmen of the poor. If my relatives were articulate they would not be poor. If they could appear before gentlemen such as you and make a good case for their aspirations, they would of course not need a War on Poverty. They would not be “out of it.” They might not be the warm human beings they are but they would be verbal, aggressive, and not so poor. They would have been included in on the Act of America.
When I talk to Peace Corps volunteers who have returned from overseas they tell me, along with many modern historians and economists, that the very structure of the relation between the rich and poor keeps the poor, poor; that the powerful do not want change and that it is the very system itself that causes poverty; and that it is futile to work within this framework. I am not an economist and cannot evaluate these ideas, I hope that men of good will even among the powerful are willing to have their “boat rocked” a little in order to accomplish the task our country has set itself.
As I say I am not sure of the causes of poverty, but one of its correlates at least is this powerlessness, lack of experience, and lack of articulateness.
Now we have a new crusade in America — our “War on Poverty” — which purports to begin with a revolutionary new concept – working with the local community. Indian youth could not be more pleased with the kinds of statements, and we hope that for the first time since we were disposed of as a military threat our parents will have something to say about their own destiny and not be ignored as is usually the case. If I am once again a little cynical let me outline the reasons for our fears. I do not doubt that all of you are men of good will and that you do intend to work with the local community. My only fear is what you think the local community is.
It has been my experience that many Americans think of a community in terms of a physical area or a legal unit, not in terms of a social unit — a unit where people have close personal ties, one to another. Lot me give you an example of what I mean. The Ponca tribe of which I am a member lives in Kay County, Oklahoma. You could call Kay County a community, it is a legally designated unit, but if it is a community my relatives are not part of it. In fact, I would imagine Kay County, Oklahoma to be a number of` communities, as I use the term – several white communities and an Indian community. One white community, the business class of our county seat, owns the riches in the institutional structure and makes decisions for the other communities in Kay County. There is probably some overlap between the various white communities in our county, but certainly our Indian community, as far as being part of Kay County, might as well be on Mars. I would guess that this is the dilemma of the poor, be they Indian, Anglo, Mexican-American or Negro. Our communities have no representatives in the legally designated units of which we are a part.
With the Indians this is even more complicated because as many of you know, we do have a legal structure which articulates us with the central government even though we have no articulation with the county and state government. On the face of it, Indians seem to be in a better position than most other poor people. However, these institutions called tribal governments have very limited functions from the viewpoint of the Indians who live in our communities. In most places they serve as a buffer against the outsider. And in fact other people of prestige and influence among us thus to unnoticed and unbothered by the white man, so that much of our important leadership is hidden from the eyes of outsiders. Many times our tribal governments, which have very little legal power, have been forced into the position of going along with programs they did not like and which in the long run were harmful. They had no choice. They were powerless to do otherwise.
Modern Americans have developed a habit in recent years of naming something and then assigning attributes to whatever they have named which are part of the name itself. There is no Kay County, Oklahoma, community in a social sense. We are not part of it except in the most tangential legal sense. We only live there. There is no Ponca tribal government. It is only named that. We are among the poor, the powerless, the inexperienced and the inarticulate.
I do not know how to solve the problem of poverty and I’m not even sure that poverty is what we must solve — perhaps it is only a symptom. In a rich country like the United States, if poverty is the lack of money and resources, that seems to me to be a very small problem indeed. So I cannot say whether poverty is a symptom or a cause or how one would go about solving it in pure economic terms. But of this is I am certain, when a people are powerless and their destiny is controlled by the powerful, whether they be rich or poor, they live in ignorance and frustration because they have been deprived of experience and responsibility as frustration individuals and as communities. In the modern world there is no substitute for this kind of experience. One must have it to make rational choices, to live in a world you feel competent to deal with and not be frustrated by. No one can gain this experience without the power to make these decisions himself with his fellows in his local community. No amount of formal education or money can take the place of these basic life experiences for the human being. If the Indian does not understand the modern economy it is because he has never been involved in it. Someone has made those decisions for him. Hand outs do not erode character. The lack of power over one’s own destiny erodes character. And I might add, self esteem is an important part of character. No one can have competence unless he has both the experience to become competent and make decisions which display competence.
In the old days the Ponca people lived on the buffalo and we went out and hunted it. We believe that God gave the buffalo as a gift to us. That alone did not erode our character, but no one went out and found the buffalo for us and no one organized our hunts for us, nor told us how to divide our meats, nor told us how to direct our prayers. We did that ourselves. And we felt ourselves to be a competent, worthy people. In those days we were not “out of the system.” We were the system, and we dealt competently with our environment because we had the power to do so. White businessmen and bureaucrats did not make the Poncas’ decisions; the Poncas made those decisions and carried them out. If we were rich one year, it was our doing and if we were poor the next, we felt competent to deal with that condition. Democracy is just not good in the abstract, it is necessary for the human condition; and the epitome of democracy is responsibility as individuals and as communities, of people. There can not be responsibility unless people can make decisions and stand by them or fall by them.
I might also add it is only when a community has real freedom that outside help will be effective. The lessons of new nations have certainly taught us that. It was only when colonies in Africa and Asia had their freedom that economic help from France and England became productive. We can apply that lesson here in America to the local community itself.
I congratulate you gentlemen on the great crusade you have undertaken. I wish you luck, not for your sake, but for the sake of my relatives; and I beseech you to in fact deal with the local community, not just a physical or legal area, but a community of people. Give our communities respect, the power to make choices about our own destiny, and with a little help we will be able to join the United States and live a decent fulfilling life.
*This was the second part of a scheduled speech to be given by Clyde Warrior before before the Presendial Communion’s War on Poverty. he was no allowed to give this second part.